It’s not often you get to witness firsthand a Hall-of-Fame caliber player. They are few and far between. It’s even more rare that you get to witness one who redefined his position; who set nearly every record in the book. A player who defined what it meant to be a player at that position forever going forward.
From 2009 to 2013, Falcons fans were able to witness just that when Thomas Dimitroff traded a second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for tight end Tony Gonzalez. The 33-year-old tight end was surely nearing the end of his career, but he managed to tack on an additional five years in the red and black. In that time, he continued to play at a remarkably high level.
During his time in Atlanta, he managed to put together an impressive stat line. He totaled 409 receptions for 4,187 yards and 35 touchdowns. He was a third-down conversion machine and if that ball was anywhere near him, he was coming down with it. The Falcons have had some decent tight ends over the years, but those five years were some of the best the franchise had ever seen.
Impact on Matt Ryan
It’s easy to get lost in the stats and the performances. While those were incredible in their own right, it was what Tony Gonzalez did as a teammate and leader that has had a lasting impact. He came in during Matt Ryan’s second year in the league and the impact to Ryan was tremendous, as we covered previously.
Gonzalez was able to play into his late 30s because of his offseason routine and his focus on staying in shape. That carried over to Ryan and that commitment could give us a few more years of high quality play out of our franchise QB.
Tony G. also taught Matt Ryan how to trust him. Ryan was forced to learn what it meant for Gonzalez to be open, and how to place the ball where his guy could win. That type of faith and ability to throw to a guy who is “covered” has carried over in Ryan’s willingness to throw to guys like Julio Jones and Austin Hooper, allowing them to win even when they aren’t wide open.
“And last but not least, I want to thank Matt Ryan. One of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, he’s on his way. He already is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. We made sweet music together, Matt, and I appreciate you.” - Tony Gonzalez
That critical playoff catch
Who could forget it? In the 2012 playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, down 28-27, Matt Ryan had 25 seconds left on the clock to save the team from collapse. His first pass to Harry Douglas went for 22 yards and advanced them to the 50 yard line. His next pass went to Tony G., who again, was mostly covered. Gonzalez caught the pass for a 19-yard gain and just 13 seconds left on the clock. With another clutch kick from Matt Bryant, the Falcons took the 30-28 lead and secured Matt Ryan’s first playoff victory, as well as the first (and only) one for Gonzalez.
Gonzalez played for one more season after that, and the team has struggled for years to find a tight end that could even come close to his production, much less his overall impact on the team. He was the consummate professional and it was a joy to watch him play. Here we are, five years after he retired, and he’s still a name that Falcons fans respect and love. That alone shows you the impact he had on this team and it’s fans.
Thank you, Tony, for the five amazing years you gave to us.